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Wednesday, 12 February 1986
Page: 170


Senator ZAKHAROV —My question is addressed to the Leader of the Government in the Senate. I refer the Minister to recent allegations from the Customs Officers Association and sections of the media claiming that the Australian Customs Service is in poor shape and is unable properly to carry out its functions in the areas of drug importations and surveillance. In particular there were allegations that a Customs launch was hardly ever used. What is the Minister's response to these allegations?


Senator BUTTON —On a number of occasions I have said that I believe that the Australian Customs Service is a very good one and that the officers of the Australian Customs Service are predominantly highly motivated and very diligent in the way they perform their duties. However, there have been a number of allegations made about the Customs Service and it is sad to relate that many of them emanate from officers of the union of the Customs Service-the Customs Officers Association. I recall that about three or four weeks ago a number of allegations being made about alleged deficiencies in the Customs Service in drug detection in the port of Melbourne and similar--


Senator Missen —Costigan said a lot about it.


Senator BUTTON —Yes, I agree. I make the general point that allegations about the use of customs facilities and so on are quite widespread. They do no credit to and have no benefit for the members of the Customs Service who, I believe, perform their duties effectively and well. The sad thing is that very rarely is there any real substance in these allegations. I remind the Senate that the report of the last inquiry into the Customs Service, the Mahony Review of Customs Administration and Procedures, said:

The COA representative, in public hearing, stated that unsubstantiated allegations . . . had been made to the media for the purpose of gaining public support for the objectives of the Association.

It is sad that since that time there have been a number of similar allegations. One example is that three or four weeks ago it was alleged by a senior officer of the Customs Officers Association that a customs launch based at Geraldton in Western Australia had scarcely been used since it was commissioned on 14 May 1985. That allegation received widespread media coverage and interest because everybody is in favour of customs launches being used to detect smugglers, drug peddlers and so on. The point is that in the 123 days since the commissioning of that launch until the time the allegation was made, 53 days were lost in use of that launch as a result of an industrial ban placed on its use by the Customs Officers Association.


Senator MacGibbon —A strike under Labor-very rare.


Senator BUTTON —I agree. It is very rare but it happens occasionally. As the honourable senator knows, we have an enormous legacy of sloth by previous governments to overcome. I remind the honourable senator that last year was the lowest year for industrial disputes in this country for 17 years. He should not forget that. Nonetheless, of those 123 days when the customs launch could have been used, 53 days were lost due to an industrial ban by the Customs Officers Association and 24 further days were lost through crew leave and days off. The Customs Officers Association admittedly put to the Customs Service that there could be additional crewing and other things to enable the launch to be used more regularly. That would have cost the Service $467,000 in a year. It is a matter of judgment and management judgment as to how the facilities of the Customs Service are best used.

There have also been allegations made about the number of customs staff used for enforcement as distinct from revenue collection. About 46 per cent of all Customs staff are used for enforcement purposes. I also make the point that there have been three major inquiries into Customs since 1980. None have identified fundamental problems with Customs although there have been a number of minor inadequacies referred to which have been addressed. Recently the Government has established the Australian Customs Service as an independent organisation. It has had that independence for six months and it should be allowed to get on with the job. Complaints made by some senior officers of the Customs Officers Association are not helping in that task. No customs service in the world, including this one, can be satisfied with the degree of success achieved by Customs in dealing with drug running. The allegations which are made from time to time about the Customs Service are immediately and regularly examined by senior management of that service. It does no benefit to what is in essence a fine service to have these sorts of allegations made. I conclude by saying that there is competition within the Australian Customs Service for membership between two trade unions. I mention that without comment but I think that it has a lot to do with the allegations being made.